• By: Owen Maxwell

The uncanny world of Killer Mike & Run The Jewels

Run the Jewels has been on a high for a decade now, and it’s meant that Michael Render, better known as Killer Mike, has put his solo work on hold. Along with serving as one half of Run the Jewels, Render has started a chain of barbershops, co-founded a Black-run bank, launched multiple TV shows and web series, and even played a part in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. A few years on since their fourth solo record, RTJ4, and Render has a new solo track, “Run,” and Run the Jewels is on tour with Rage Against the Machine, with a showstopping night at RBC Bluesfest on July 15 featuring them both. We caught up with Killer Mike to chat about managing businesses, new music, and why his various projects are like intertwining Marvel storylines.

OLM: I find every artist has a different story about how they pick which songs go in which groups or which solo projects, so after ten years, what made “Run” specifically feel like a song you had to tackle on your own?

Killer Mike: It’s been ten years since my solo record R.A.P. Music, shout out to El-P, my former publicist, Williams Street Records, Heathcliff, just everyone that really pushed me above the surface for that album. I really appreciate the fans for supporting it, because it really was like a prequel to Run the Jewels. I knew within the first three hours of recording that album that I was supposed to be making music with El-P, and over the last nine years that theory has proven way beyond righteous. We went from playing 3-600 people rooms to now opening for Rage Against the Machine to over 40,000 people. And I’m extremely grateful and humbled to be here.

Young Thug was one of the first people to help me on the #BankBlack campaign,  so when I heard him rap on the track “Thinkin’ the same, but ain’t bankin’ the same,” that meant the world to me, because it meant it stuck with him. When he talks about saving kids from the trenches and escape on a yacht boat, I think about what the reversal of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is. What could we do if we as Black Americans travelled back to Africa, and help develop things there in a more fair way, and not just use them like colonizers. The abstract of Young Thug’s influence on the record, and how he said these very deep things in an abstract, slick and cool sounding way, and then having No I.D. produce the song made it a dream come true.

OLM: And what did you want the video to say?

Killer Mike: If you look at Run the Jewels like the world of the X-Men, “Run” represents a kind of side story for Wolverine/Logan. One half of Run the Jewels is an African-American man, and Lord knows African-Americans have suffered some tumultuous times since 1619. But I don’t want our story to simply be one of people who were brought here in slavery, and have been running from and oppression, and slavery, and evil and Jim Crow, we have been running towards something. We have been running towards freedom, and justice and equality. We’ve contributed an awful lot to this republic. The first person to die on the behalf of this republic, when it was escaping the tyranny of taxation of the U.K, was a man named Crispus Attucks, he was a Black man. And I thought it was appropriate to shoot a video that showed a Black man running to engage in a fight with allied people, both Black, white, Pacific Islander, other races, against what is known as a traitorous confederacy, and what was known as a tyrannical, fascist society of Nazis. It showed an allied group of people, led by a righteous Black brother, whooping ass of some Confederates and Nazis. We weren’t running from nothing, we weren’t running from slave captors, we were running to the fight for the freedom, justice and equality of us all.

It dropped on July 4, and it dropped letting people know that not only is freedom and patriotism for everyone, it’s not just for white Anglo-Saxon protestants, it’s for the first person who died on the behalf of this republic, Crispus Attucks. So in the spirit of him, Sojourner Truth, Shirley Chisholm, Booker T. Washington, in the spirit of all these people, this video was meant to show you that we’re running towards something, that the spirits and voices of our ancestors are empowering that, and that people in allyship that aren’t necessarily the same, there’s a diversity there. And it’s meant to show you that good guys win in the end. And after they win, they have a beautiful piece of political propaganda hung up in museums to show that good people can, have and will win again.

I think that our French-Canadian brother Adrian Villagomez (Montreal) did an amazing job. We spent three, tumultuous, hot-ass days south of the city of Atlanta. I was in a leather jacket too, because like Pimp C said “TV ain’t got no temperature.” And we shot a badass mini-movie that people have really reacted to, and I really appreciate all the people who supported my solo effort.

OLM: Do you see this turning into a whole solo album soon?

Killer Mike: If people like it maybe I’ll drop a whole album, but for right now I’m still enjoying Run The Jewels, and I’m enjoying solo-ism in a way where I can offer up that Wolverine story in our X-Men universe, but more as a side story in the middle. I’m loving that the Jewel Runners (their fans) get to see the whole story of Michael Render, because they know Killer Mike, but it’s nice to introduce them to parts of me they might not have known.  When you hear me say the west side of Atlanta is where I’m from, that’s an all-Black world, I didn’t have more than two white teachers my whole life. I didn’t go to school’s named for white people, the people around me in power, whether they were good or bad, looked like me. So I grew up in a world that people fantasize about. When people say, “What does it feel like to not be a minority?” I don’t know what it feels like to be a minority. “What would it be like if Black people were in power of their own destiny?” I grew up in a neighborhood that was founded by Black people for Black people in 1946, called Collier Heights. So for me, my backstory for Michael is a very interesting one, and I got a chance to give people that in a more soul-filled ride.

OLM: How has the experience been expanding your SWAG (Shave, Wash and Groom) barber shops from one shop into a larger chain? How many out of 150 shops have you hit and did you secure your barber’s license?

Killer Mike: For my license, I’m still under my apprenticeship, I haven’t taken the test to get my license yet. We’re three shops in Atlanta, Covid stopped us in our tracks, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We have a flagship store, one by the airport and one at the State Farm Arena where instead of getting a VIP ticket you can get a beer and haircut and watch the game. We’re going to open more shops at the top of the year, and my intention is still the same, open three shops in every major Black market, whether that’s Buffalo, Miami or Birmingham. I want one on every Martin Luther King boulevard. We have amazing paintings, and even merch. We just want to get men, women, children, family and friends through that door and to spoil themselves for an hour, so they can conquer the world looking cool. I look forward to growing the business and licensing it to more people.

OLM: You did mention that you and El-P have hit the studio a bit recently too, did that get anywhere you can speak to yet? 

Killer Mike: Oh we’ll do Run the Jewels 5, don’t worry about that. El-P put on a beat, we were in this studio and he put it on, and it was crazy so I wanted to just start rapping. I said, “This is the start of RTJ5,” and he said, “No, no we’re not yet for a whole album.” But he currently has two more beats that I want that he hasn’t given me yet. So now we’re out on the road, I’m already scoping out studios, so when I’m off this we’re going right into the studio to finish up this one we already started. I really would love to get Run the Jewels 5, a third of the way done while we’re out, because we’re not doing much outside of the stage. So besides smoking weed and drinking shots of whiskey, we ain’t got much else to do but rap.

OLM: Touring with Rage Against the Machine for you guys is a dream tour for fans, but you guys too! With Zack De La Rocha’s legendary features on “JU$T” and “Close Your Eyes” have you guys been scheming on how to unleash him for the live shows with these songs?

Killer Mike: It’s gonna happen. Logistics have prevented it for now, and we just haven’t been able to soundcheck it with all that going on. But shoutout to Rage because they’re open to do it. So at some point you’re going to see us on stage together making that a reality.

OLM: Looking at your last record RTJ4, “JU$T” was just such a phenomenal song. And I heard you debated getting Zack to tone things down before asking him to go full “Rage” vocals on the track. I was curious how it was making that song in the studio with Pharrell and Zack? 

Killer Mike: Zack is truly an unofficial member of Run the Jewels. He’s always welcome on any album he wants to be on, he’s a friend and a comrade, and it would be great to get all of Rage on a track. We were with Pharrell at Rick Rubin’s studio Shangri-La, and Pharrell and Rick were listening. We said to Pharrell, “If you f*ck with it, would you mind f*cking around with a hook or something?” And he did it, and El and I said “That’s a dope record, let’s put Zack on it.” When Zack sent it back, my f*cking mind was blown. Zack is a hell of an emcee, and getting to bridge that gap between rap and rock and roll was special. As long as we’re in league with Rage Against the Machine, we’ll always be open to do that. It’s cool because El and I are old enough to remember when rap and rock shared a comradery in that all the adults hated them equally.

OLM: It was also a total surprise to see you pop in the fourth season of “Ozark” recently, how was filming that, and how did that happen?

Killer Mike: That show has some amazing writers and musical directors. They had used Run the Jewels and Killer Mike tracks, and I was already a big fan of the show, so when they asked me to do it, I just jumped at the opportunity. Laura, Julia, Jason, I appreciate them all, they helped me get through it and understand what I needed to do. When I’m bored at home I’m either smoking a joint to watch Hot Rod TV or rewatching “Ozark.” I’m probably as into that show as some my friends are into “The Wire.” Seeing criminality in middle America was just interesting to me. You need Joe Kennedy’s to make America, some unadulterated bootleggers to make sure their sons can become presidents and their families have a legacy. Now if I can just get on “Billions,” which one of my friends wrote, my bucket list would be complete.

OLM: Your cat sound remix record Meow the Jewels is easily one of the most unique and cheeky things I’ve ever seen any group do, and then to put out a special edition of the vinyl with fur like you did. Have there been any similar ideas kicked around to remix your newer records in a similar way?

Killer Mike: I can’t talk about it. But, expect something crazy to happen soon.

Photo: Jonathan Mannion